One of the most common questions I get asked regarding my conversion to the Catholic faith is why I would leave a ‘spirit-filled’ church to join a dead, lifeless, ritualistic, man-made religion. Bear in mind, the inquiries don’t normally put down the Catholic Church in such a manner; however, these questions are usually pretty loaded. The nature of the question offers up very specific implications regarding the Catholic tradition. Over time, I have learned not to take offense when asked. Moreover, no matter the intention of the person asking I take the initiative in believing that these moments are opportunity for true, ecumenical dialogue. So, I oblige them to define exactly what they think being ‘spirit-filled’ means.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. – Acts 2:1-4
Typically, the most common definition for being ‘spirit-filled’ among protestant-evangelicals will take you to the Pentecost account in Acts chapter two. The act of speaking in tongues, as I have observed in my own experience constitutes what many evangelicals call Baptism in the Holy Spirit. For many, this baptism, of sorts, marks a moment of deepened conversion separate from the initial response of faith known as ‘being saved’. Entering into this new fellowship allows for a more intimate prayer life and a reinvigorated encounter with Christ in matters of worship and personal faith formation. Cradle Catholics may have, at one point or another, come across the Pentecostal style of worship and been taken back by what they have witnessed. I’m speaking in generalized terms here because there are always exceptions to these experiences. The point that I aim to make is that the Catholic understanding of ‘spirit-filled’ worship is often different than that of our Protestant brothers and sisters. Our worship is liturgical in that it revolves around various prayers and rites established by the Church. Catholic worship is Eucharistic and thereby entails an authentic encounter of the Holy Spirit.
It is for such reasons that I should offer up an explanation as to how the Holy Spirit ‘encounter’ occurs during the liturgy. The order of mass takes us, first, through the Liturgy of the Word which begins with a penitential rite, followed by readings from Scripture, songs of praise and worship, and a brief reflection on the Scriptures offered by the celebrant. All of which serves to prepare the faithful for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After being submerged deeply into the Word of God we begin to prepare ourselves to receive, in a most intimate way, the Word made Flesh. Bread and wine are offered up at the altar, in keeping with the events of the upper room, and the priest consecrates the elements using the words originally uttered from the mouth of Christ. ‘Take, eat, this is my body…” From the pew, we find ourselves witnessing something truly great unfolding before our eyes. Initially, one may inquire as to what authority the priest believes his words can be spoken with the same effect as Christ. Some of you might even be thinking to yourself “Even if Christ really did transform the bread and wine at the last supper and again on the way to Emmaus, how could this priest possibly think his words are just as powerful?”
The reality concerning this authority under which priests operate in any capacity come as gifts of the Holy Spirit imparted unto them in their ordination. Such authority is well-documented in the New Testament. For instance, in John’s Gospel he speaks about Christ’s appearance to the apostles wherein Christ breathes on them and tells the apostles to ‘”receive the Holy Spirit” and in that very moment gives them the power to forgive sins. (cf. John 20:22-23) Such authority had been echoed previously in the Gospel accounts of Matthew when Christ assures them that whatever they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (cf. Matthew 18:18) From these writings we can know with certainty that Jesus gave his authority to the apostles so that the ministry might continue in keeping with the forthcoming ‘great commission.’ (cf. Matthew 28:19) This authority was, in fact, passed on from the apostles to their successors. A prime example of this apostolic succession is found in Paul’s first and second letter to Timothy where he recalls Timothy’s ordination. (cf. 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6) It is because of this apostolic succession that our priests can practice their ministry under the same authority given to the apostles.
It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion…. – CCC 1375a
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” – CCC 1376
How often will you see a Catholic jumping around and singing at the top of their lungs during Mass? Probably never. This reality is due, likely, to one of two predominant reasons. The mass is meant to be more of a sacred encounter than a celebration service. Granted, we are quite joyful to be partaking in the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ but our reverence for the miracles taking place usually overtake our need to be livelier in our expression of worship. After all, having a great deal of respect for what is taking place calls for orderly worship so that the focus remains on what takes place before us. Another reason, one that transcends the lines of denomination, could simply be a lack of interest or understanding of what is happening during the rites of the mass. When a person is unfamiliar with a particular style of worship, that person may often feel alienated and go on to tune out the entire experience.
From the outside-looking-in, the mass might seem a bit lifeless. It might even seem as though freedom of worship has been stifled by the established, stringent order of worship. Many New Testament scholars have come to realize that the Mass, in its present form, is the closest related manner of worship in the world today to what our apostolic fathers practiced throughout the New Testament. New Testament worship was undoubtedly centered upon the Eucharist as recorded in the scriptures. (cf. Acts 2:42) Without diverting into too much detail, I would encourage you to check out Dr. Scott Hahn’s beautiful study of the book of Revelation entitled “The Lamb’s Supper” wherein he lays out the parallels between John’s apocalyptic visions and the mass. Since her apostolic origins, the Church has centered her focus upon this Eucharistic expression of worship. The smaller details of liturgical practice have been developed further throughout the millennia to accommodate the globalized mission of the Church. (cf. Matthew 28:19)
The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This joint mission henceforth brings Christ’s faithful to share in his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may “bear much fruit.” – CCC 737
The answer to the question I mentioned at the beginning of the post requires a correct understanding of what it means to be ‘spirit-filled’. I’ll admit these questions posed by my protestant friends and family are the same questions I asked leading up to my discernment on becoming Catholic. The Catholic interpretation is, indeed, the worship practices of the apostles that have been passed down and faithfully observed. My prayer for this post is that if you are Catholic that you are now more equipped to answer the questions of all who inquire about your faith so that you might give a defense for what you believe and if you’re not Catholic that hopefully, through this post, you will be encouraged to ask more questions; to discover the rich beauty of the Catholic Church.